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She may have two newly adopted kittens strutting back and forth across her keyboard, but it's not the "interesting word choices" from tiny paws causing local author Barbara O'Neal to be out-of-sorts these days.

"I am still awfully restless, and a little bit crazy and sort of grumpy, and it's because I haven't been able to really be at the keyboard and write," she says. "I haven't been immersed in a novel for months. I'm happiest if I have a daily schedule, even a daily practice almost of just showing up and writing and being in a book. It makes me feel centered and calm, and that's what I feel like I'm supposed to be doing."

It must be. On Dec. 21, the third-generation Colorado Springs native released her 38th full-length novel, How to Bake a Perfect Life. It's the story of a local professional baker trying to mother a daughter whose Army husband has been injured in Afghanistan, and act as guardian to her daughter's stepdaughter while attempting to keep her business open ... and rediscover love.

How to Bake a Perfect Life has received glowing reviews from Publishers Weekly, the Library Journal and booksellers alike. This month, national retailer Target selected the novel as its 26th Book Club Pick, putting it in the company of Betty Smith's classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Jeannette Walls' heartbreaking memoir The Glass Castle.

Though she's new to this level of exposure, O'Neal's been keeping a pace of nearly two novels a year since she was first published by Silhouette in 1990. To date, she has 22 category romance, seven historical romance and nine women's fiction novels and seven anthologies to her name. (Actually to a few names: O'Neal has also written under Barbara Samuel, her name from a former marriage, and the pseudonym Ruth Wind.) And from that backlist, she's won two Colorado Book awards and six RITAs (the Emmy of the romance fiction world).

Of course, even though her output is impressive, she says there's always pressure to do well — pressure she puts on herself with each new story as well as the societal pressure that she feels comes with being a writer of books for women. O'Neal believes series romance is the most underestimated genre currently being published.

"It is short and sweet and intense," she says, "but people don't understand how much you can do with that 60 or 75 thousand words. And it's often about one of the most critical decisions that a woman makes in her life. Which is, 'Who will be my mate?' ... Choosing properly is a really important thing to do. I'm not saying that you have to have a romance in order to have your life be healthy and whole, but certainly that's a big part. ...

"People dismiss romance as an unimportant subject, because it's women writing for women. Plain and simple."

It doesn't help when labels such as "chick lit" are given to the work of top-selling women authors.

"Jennifer Weiner, for example, who is really smart, and her work is very layered and it's really very literary on some levels, is often still dismissed by the literary world, because she's writing women's books about women's lives and she's a woman writer. ..."

Maybe this reality has something to do with O'Neal's restlessness, too; it's certainly not contributing to any sense of resignation.

"That's a prejudice we're still fighting."

kakens@csindy.com

  • Local author Barbara O'Neal releases novel No. 38 into a retail powerhouse.

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